Nigeria’s cosmopolitan capital, Lagos, is an exuberant display of chaos and culture, rich traditions and and inspired modernity. Its vibrant arts scene makes it one of the most fascinating cities on the African continent, and its literature remains a source of cultural revelation, displaying the both the complexities and the beauty of a country deeply rooted in history and adventure. Here we take a look at the both the dons and the newcomers of Nigerian Literature as well as famous novels that celebrate the country within their pages.
A Bit of Difference by Sefi Atta
Lagos features in flashback in Sefi Atta’s third novel, which revolves around a young woman called Deola. Her life in London is one in which her expat existence in the UK is mirrored by her dissatisfaction with Ikoyi, the Lagos suburb she grew up in. Characters in the novel include her ‘doing well’ Nigerian friends in the UK and her Lagos-based relatives, including her matriarchal mother and her unhappily married sister.
London Life Lagos Living by Bobo Omotayo
‘When will I get married? Do I have the right friends? Which church shall I go to? How can I become a celebrity?’ These are just some of the urban, 21st century concerns of young, hip Lagosians that are captured in this series of tales about what could be termed the ‘Africa rising generation’. Fashion, music, art and culture are the new big career choices for Nigeria’s youth, but what does that mean in a world where even the post thirty-something’s are asking themselves the same questions as those in their teens? Writer and social commentator Omotayo takes a humorous look at Lagos’s changing, uber-metropolitan landscape in this stylish, glossy book.
Lagos: City of the Imagination by Kaye Whiteman
Published in Nigeria (by Cassava Republic), in the US (by Signal Books) and in the UK (by Interlink), the late historian and journalist Kaye Whiteman has put together a thorough and spirited book that paints a dynamic and fully historical background to Lagos. From the ‘evolution of the multi-ethnic gene pool’ to Lagos literature, art, film and politics, this is a must-read for anyone trying to get a full sense – past and present – of Nigeria’s former capital city.
The Thing Around Your Neck by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie
Much praised for her debut novel Purple Hibiscus, her award-winning, screen-adapted Half of a Yellow Sun, and her 2013 novel Americanah, Adichie shows that she can also sublimely craft a short story in this collection of 12 episodes. Some of the episodes are Lagos-based, with the book’s title coming from the story of Akunna whose dreams of gaining an American visa turn sour, while in another story, ‘Imitation’, Lagos becomes a place of emotional conflict for a young mother and her art-dealer husband.
Nights of the Creaking Bed by Toni Kan
Set mostly in Lagos, this collection of short stories will leave you with the thoughts of other people’s lives lingering with you long after you’ve read the last pages. Tales of unexpected love, tragic poverty, hope, joy and impossible challenges are all harnessed in the diverse stories of this book.
Every Day is for The Thief by Teju Cole
Teju Cole’s novella tells the fragmented tale of a nameless Nigerian who returns to Lagos after 15 years of imbibing the metropolitan vibes of New York. Parallel cities in some ways, Lagos shows this particular returnee that his ordered and seemingly highbrow lifestyle in the States has made him a West African alien. Reading like a series of episodic vignettes, the chapters are interspersed with photographs (another skill of this author) as the main character meanders through transitory situations that arise in this throbbing, African megalopolis.
What Sunny saw in the Flames by Nnedi Okorafor
With parts of this story set in Lagos, Sci-Fi writer Nnedi Okorafor takes us on a journey of magic realism involving 13-year-old Sunny, a New York born, Nigeria-based girl who has two distinct characteristics. She’s an albino, and her sensitive eyes can see into the future. With her three best friends she enters into an absorbing world of strange creatures and dark secrets but it’s her special powers that take her into the alarming arena of murder and mystery.
Waiting for an Angel by Helon Habila
A recipient of the Caine Prize for African Writing, Helon Habila’s interweaving narrative in Waiting for an Angel is constructed in seven parts and explores the mind of a jailed journalist who recounts his life through his memories of the residents of “Poverty Street” in Lagos during Nigeria’s period of dictatorship.
Looking for Transwonderland by Noo Saro-Wiwa
Wry humour and affection permeate this travel novel by Noo Saro-Wiwa, daughter of the executed activist Ken Saro-Wiwa. Despite some of the acute social and political problems in NIgeria, and Saro-Wiwa’s ambiguous relationship with the country, her engaging tale starts off in Lagos and takes us on a journey through the south and north of Nigeria where she meets fierce evangelists, wealthy Zimbabweans, ornithologists and also manages to hang out in the fairground attraction of Transwonderland, from which her book gets its title.
Fela: This Bitch of a Life by Carlos Moore
This warts and all authorised biography of Nigeria’s biggest musical icon is written by longtime friend of Fela, Dr Carlos Moore. An ethnologist and political scientist, Moore presents us with what is undeniably the closest true picture of the musician, composer and activist. It’s not always comfortable reading when you consider the artist’s ambiguous relationship with women and his brutal skirmishes with the Lagos authorities. The book was first published in the early 1980s, but this re-issue by Abuja-based Cassava Republic Press is the first African publication. Interestingly, one section of the book provides telling insights into what it was like to be one of Fela’s wives. First person accounts from fifteen of his former spouses make up over half of the 27 members of the female entourage of the band that Fela married in one sitting.
Of Africa by Wole Soyinka
Nobel Prize Literature winner and African laureate Wole Soyinka’s connections with Lagos are pretty diverse. His early and later plays have premiered there, he was at one time the headmaster of the University of Lagos and he’s the current consultant for the Lagos Black heritage Festival. However, his latest novel goes beyond the city and looks to the African continent to unpick its past and present identity, its spiritual character, its people, places and imagination – all from his long-lived and well-experienced point of view.
Header image: piovesempre/iStock/Thinkstock
Are you a fan of Nigerian literature? Which are your favourite books about Lagos? Let us know in the comments section below.
Written by Nana Ocran
You must be a registered user to add a comment. If you've already registered, sign in. Otherwise, register and sign in.
About the author: NanaNana Ocran
Nana Ocran is a London-based writer and editor specialising in contemporary African culture. She was Editor-in-Chief for the Time Out Group’s series of guides to Lagos and Abuja and has consulted on and established publications on West African culture for the Danish Film Institute, the Arts Council England and the Institute of International Visual Arts. She was a nominee for CNN’s African Journalist of the Year (2011), and curatorial advisor for the Afrofuture programme at La Rinascente during Milan Design Week 2013. Nana is a regular features writer for Arik Airline’s in flight magazine, Wings, in which she writes about art, lifestyle, innovation and enterprise issues relating to Arik’s African, European and US destinations. She has been a jury member for Film Africa (London) and the Festival del Cinema Africano, d'Asia e America Latina (Milan).